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Too hot to work? | What to do when employees threaten to walk out

If previous heatwaves have taught us anything, it’s that workplaces can descend into sweaty chaos when summer rolls around. 

The fact is, nobody likes to work in the sweltering heat, and many workplaces simply aren’t built for it. In some cases, this boils over into frustrations. In fact, in previous years, people have even created Facebook groups with the aim of mobilising people to walk out in mass protest.

With the nation headed for the ‘hottest summer ever’ and ‘at least five heatwaves’ on the horizon, as an employer, you might be bracing for temperature-induced tantrums, or worried that professionalism and productivity might go out of the window. 

So what does the law say? Can employees just down tools when the heat gets too much? And how should you address related issues?

How hot is too hot? The law on office temperatures

The long and short of it is that the law doesn’t specify minimum or maximum working temperatures. However, it’s suggested that people typically work best at temperatures between 16°C and 24°C, depending on the type of work being done. Strenuous work is better performed at slightly lower temperatures than office work.

Guidelines suggest a general minimum of 16°C, or 13°C if the majority of the work involves rigorous physical effort. As far as maximum temperatures go, TUC guidance states that the maximum temperature employees should work in is 30°C, or 27°C for manual workers. 

If the work environment exceeds these temperatures, the TUC say staff should be allowed to go home. These limits, it argues, should be set in law so that employers and workers know when action must be taken.

In fact, in the midst of the summer 2019 heatwave, Jeremy Corbyn announced a Labour policy to allow workers to go home if temperatures reach 30°C. The former Labour leader also proposed to require employers to allow greater flexibility in working arrangements and dress codes, introduce extra breaks, and install cooling systems. 

However, many were quick to point out that the plans were counter-intuitive, as one of the proposed “effective heating controls” was to require employers to introduce air conditioning, which would only serve to exacerbate the issue of global warming further. The Institute of Economic Affairs also pointed out that employers already have a legal duty to provide comfortable working temperatures.

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A health and safety issue

In the absence of legislation, employers still have a legal obligation under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace. 

However, again, the regulations don’t specify what qualifies as reasonable, stating instead that this will depend on the nature of the work being carried out and the conditions of the workplace. They advise that it is up to the employer to determine what’s reasonable based on the particular circumstances.

So why can't a legal limit be set?

Well, according to the HSE, “a meaningful figure cannot be given at the upper end of the scale due to the high temperatures found in, for example, glass works or foundries.”

It explains: “In such environments, it is still possible to work safely provided appropriate controls are present.”

Nevertheless, the regulator does stress that workplace temperature is one of the potential hazards employers must address in order to meet their legal obligations. 

It emphasises that health and safety law requires employers to undertake a risk assessment to identify possible causes of harm within the workplace and take steps to reduce these risks to as low a level as possible.

What's the harm?

As well as it being uncomfortable to work in hot temperatures, there are very real health and safety risks of working in a sweltering environment, including dizziness, fainting or even heat cramps (painful muscle spasms). 

What’s more, heat also leads to a loss of concentration and increased tiredness, which has obvious safety implications as it means workers are more likely to put themselves or others at risk.

As temperatures increase, so does the body’s blood temperature. If blood temperature exceeds 39°C, there is a risk of heat stroke or collapse.

Above 41°C, delirium or confusion may occur, which can prove fatal. Even if a worker recovers, the damage done to their organs may be irreparable.

Employers should be particularly wary of employees with existing health problems (as heat may aggravate medical conditions and illnesses such as high blood pressure or heart disease due to increased load on the heart) and workers over 65, who are at greater risk of heat stress.

As well as risks to employees’ health and safety, which should be employers’ primary concern, hot workplaces are also detrimental to productivity.

According to one study into the effect of temperature on employees’ ability to carry out tasks in an office environment, staff perform best when temperatures are within a “comfort zone” of between 22°C and 25°C. Above this level, productivity fell.

Hot weather HR issues

Hot weather can be the catalyst for a number of employment-related issues. Here’s some of the most common queries employers have when it comes to managing staff during a heatwave. 

Top tips for managing soaring temperatures in the workplace

Employers and employees should take simple, sensible steps to adapt to working in the heat, including outdoor work.

The Approved Code of Practice that accompanies the Workplace Regulations says that employers must take “all reasonable steps” to achieve a comfortable working temperature. Fortunately, ensuring a reasonable temperature isn’t all that difficult. 

Some of the practical steps employers should take include:

  • Moving employees away from direct sunlight and sources of heat;
  • Opening windows and installing reflective film or blinds for shading;
  • Using fans, or installing ventilation or air-cooling systems;
  • Insulating hot plants or pipes;
  • Reminding staff to stay hydrated;
  • Relaxing the dress code if appropriate (and only if the employee isn’t working in a safety-critical role); and
  • Allowing flexible working arrangements, such as working from home or changing working hours.

The Code also states that employers must provide “effective and suitable ventilation”. However, make sure this isn’t simply done by opening doors that act as fire doors.

When it comes to determining what a “reasonable” temperature is, the Code says that a number of factors must be taken into account, including:

  • Protective clothing;
  • Physical activity;
  • Radiant heat;
  • Humidity;
  • Air movement; and
  • Length of time someone does a job.

In this regard, the Code also requires employers to provide a suitable number of thermometers to allow workers to check indoor temperatures.

Keeping an eye on outdoor workers

Outdoors, strenuous physical work in hot weather can lead to heat stress and heat exhaustion. 

Too much sunlight can cause skin damage, including sunburn, blistering and skin ageing, and long-term exposure can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer. 

As an employer, there are some sensible controls that should be implemented to protect those working outdoors in high summer temperatures. These include:

  • Rescheduling work to cooler times of the day;
  • Providing more frequent rest breaks and introducing shading to rest areas;
  • Introducing shading in areas where individuals are working;
  • Providing free access to cool drinking water;
  • Reiterating the importance of wearing sunblock and/or a hat;
  • Making sure protective clothing is light and suitable;
  • Encouraging the removal of PPE when resting to help facilitate heat loss; and
  • Educating workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress.

These steps are particularly important given there are around 100,000 new cases of skin cancer every year in the UK, albeit under 10% are malignant. Most cases are caused by exposure to sunlight and are easily preventable. 

Working outside in hot weather can also lead to dehydration, heat stress, fatigue, muscle cramps, rashes, fainting – and, in severe cases, loss of consciousness. An adequate risk assessment should be carried out to evaluate and ensure appropriate controls are in place.

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